Collaboration: History

The Drafting of The Declaration of Independence 
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Teamwork and collaboration are found throughout American Political History, with the signing of The Declaration of Independence as a well-documented example. This formal document publicly outlined reasons why the thirteen colonies separated from the British Empire. When Congress began considering a resolution of independence in June 1776, Thomas Jefferson was appointed to a five-man committee to prepare a declaration to accompany the resolution. The other committee members were John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston of New York. After discussing the general outline, they decided that Jefferson would write the first draft since they were busy with other matters.[2]  John Adams had three reasons for Jefferson to take the lead:

“Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can."[3] 

The assignment was considered routine; no one at the time thought that it was a major responsibility.[4]  Considering Congress's busy schedule, Jefferson probably had limited time for writing over the next 17 days, and likely wrote the draft quickly.[5] This first draft included eighty-six changes made later by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other members of the committee. The committee presented this copy to the Congress on June 28, 1776.  Over several days of debate, Congress made a few changes in wording and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade. That part of Jefferson's work which has become most famous, the second paragraph, was notably improved by the editing which Congress gave it. It contains perhaps the most quoted sentences in American history and continues to stir the thoughts of people around the world:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”[6]  

On July 4, 1776, the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved and sent to the printer for publication. The Original Rough Draught of The Declaration of Independence shows the evolution of the text from the initial composition draft by Jefferson to the final text adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776. At a later date perhaps in the nineteenth century, Jefferson indicated in the margins some but not all of the corrections suggested by Adams and Franklin. Late in life Jefferson endorsed this document.[7] 

 

We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.

Benjamin Franklin, upon signing the Declaration of Independence 

Comprehension Questions:

  1. Why did the committee appoint Jefferson to write the document? What qualifications did he have?
  2. How was Thomas Jefferson’s first draft edited?  Who was involved?
  3. How did both disagreement as well as compromise play a role in this collaboration?